The Role of a Lean Coach

Lean construction coaching began as a relatively narrow skillset, focused on the development of stable, productive workflow leveraging the practices developed into the Last Planner® System. Developing Last Planner skills was an effective starting point for project teams, as the benefits of shared planning and responsibility for rapidly adjusting to the ebb and flow unpredictable events impacting construction are substantial. Lean coaching was primarily about facilitating planning and make ready conversations.

As lean practices expanded to include design, and ultimately integrating key players on project teams, the lean coaching role also expanded. Practices such as Target Value Delivery, Choosing By Advantages Decisionmaking, A3 Problem Solving and Management Mentoring, Visual Management, and others became part of the coach’s repertoire of capabilities to teach to project team members. Building the lean capability of project team members and enterprise leaders in turn equipped projects and organizations with the ability to significantly reduce project costs and timelines.

Not All Lean Coaches Lack Owner’s Project Management Experience

A reason many owners do not consider selecting an established lean coaching consultancy as their project management representative is that most lean consultants lack owner’s project management experience. While that is true of lean consulting companies, this discounts the professional history of individual coaches in these companies. Coaches often come from diverse professional backgrounds within the design and construction industry.

For example, within LeanProject my background includes more than two decades of owner’s project management experience across a range of project types, working in a lean context. This experience begins with programming and business case development through commissioning and occupancy. Prior to my introduction to lean design and construction I was the lead estimator on a program team managing a multibillion-dollar development program.

LeanProject coach Susan Reinhardt has experience managing projects through the design phase, including project management work on multibillion-dollar projects. Klaus Lemke’s experience as a company operations manager equips our team with an understanding of the needs of the individual firms on a project team. Jason Klous’ experience as a leader in managing onsite construction provides a perspective on managing productive workflow.

In addition to this experience and our traditional lean coaching, our Courageous Leadership and Essential Conversations for Project Success programs develop the foundation for a productive team culture. For owners considering the merits of integrated forms of agreement we provide support in partnership with industry leading legal resources.  Altogether, LeanProject provides owners with a well-rounded approach for managing projects from an owner’s perspective, while integrating all the quality, cost and schedule benefits of the lean approach in programming, design, construction and commissioning.

The Role of the Owner’s Project Representative

Also known as the Owner’s Project Manager (OPM), the person or team in this position is normally tasked with ensuring all the owner’s conditions for project execution are met. This includes assigning and managing contracts, tracking expenses against budgets, reviewing work progress against schedule timelines, and settling disputes in the owner’s favor. This has traditionally been cast as an adversarial role, supporting the owner’s interests against an array of consultants and contractors that otherwise might take advantage from the complexities of designing and constructing a building project.

In this context the Owner’s Representative essentially plays a compliance role. The traditional Owner’s Representative responsibilities are not designed for a lean context, in which workflow planning and execution is about shared responsibility, not accountability. Leadership in a lean context is about coaching, and not compliance. Owners seeking to gain the full benefits of a lean approach to project design and construction need to take a fresh look at the OPM role.

LeanProject approach to the OPM role applies a lean mindset to the management of team selection and onboarding, contracts, scope definition, budgets, and schedules so as to align owner, designer, and builder interests. We leverage the owner’s powerful position on a project team, so owner interests play an active role in supporting the project team’s work to eliminate non-productive costs and significantly reduce project timelines. Daily management is conducted with a lean orientation that produces results not possible with traditional project management approaches, all within a framework that rewards the entire project team.

There are two primary reasons project owners benefit in reputation and financially from integrating lean coaching with the overall management of their projects: Culture and Lean Expertise.


When a lean implementation fails, often it is because there was an attempt to install lean processes without first creating a shared responsibility culture as the foundation for lean. In the last several years there has been an increased focus on the role of culture in promoting the success of lean practices on projects and in organizations. Much of this discussion has been productive, as an awareness of the impact of culture is the starting place for understanding that lean is a human rather than mechanical application of certain practices.

Some of this discussion is misleading, especially when it comes to establishing so-called lean behaviors. Culture is not a set of behaviors. Behaviors may evidence culture however they do not create culture. Culture begins with a clear understanding of how each person best contributes to the whole by approaching the work from a place of personal strength. It continues to develop through a shared commitment to a purpose from which each person can derive meaning that is important to them.

There is evidence that the cultural foundations established for the Toyota in 1935 were directly responsible for the incubation of the Toyota Production System that began in the 1950s. The Five Precepts of Sakichi Toyoda remain to this day a guiding statement of shared identity by which the company seeks to abide. This shared identity explains why lean is resilient at Toyota and fragile in so many other places.

Projects need deliberate cultures, defined by similar statements of shared identity. While project owners are best positioned to lead the development of culture, most have not the skillset to do so, especially in a lean context. Furthermore, they often delegate project execution to an owner’s representative that has a primary focus and experience on global project management and not culture development.

As lean coaches we have had the opportunity to apply culture development practices supporting the success of project teams. We have observed that when there is a shared identity among core team members, whether that is being a learning culture, or focused on supporting the broader team as they work toward delivering a full project scope for a challenging budget, teams create the energy required to accomplish great work.

This experience in culture development specific to supporting a lean continuous improvement learning mindset in a space of shared responsibility is a function of our role as lean coaches and is a unique capability we bring to integrating lean coaching with owner’s project representation.

Lean Expertise

Project owners and traditional owner’s project managers aware of the benefits of lean practices will often attempt to assemble a team of designers, consultants, construction managers and contractors that have already developed lean capabilities. While this is a fine start there are challenges with the approach. A primary challenge is that the owner’s project management systems, dictating information needs, flow, and structure are often not lean. Attempts at creating productive workflow are constrained by inefficient, compliance-based systems.

Another challenge is that while the individual firms on the team may have their approaches toward lean practices, these approaches are centered on their internal needs. Without optimizing lean processes across the entire project, something an owner is best suited to accomplish, conflicting systems however lean in principle create delays while team members work through conflicts.

Importantly, project team members, whether they are construction managers, architects, owner’s representatives, or other players do not have the same depth of experience and knowledge about lean practices and the responsibilities of coaching lean to an integrated project team. There are a handful of companies that have individuals with a healthy awareness of lean practices. Often these people are coaching project teams and not assigned to a project themselves. They also have other responsibilities and ambitions beyond lean coaching. Most internal lean coaches also focus nearly exclusively on either the construction phase or design phase of a project.


Ultimately the project owner is responsible for the energy, tone, and practices on the project. The success of the impact they have results from how the project team is selected, onboarded onto the project, and equipped with capabilities and systems for productive work. If this leadership work is accomplished within a lean framework there is an opportunity to establish a high energy team, with an upbeat tone, and an efficient set of practices.

The role of the manager in a lean context is that of a coach, drawing out the best from each team member and building a foundation for shared success. Owner’s representation should be no different. The owner’s project manager needs to be a person or a core team that can coach a diverse range of professionals toward a more productive design and construction of a building project.

Integrating this management role with that of a lean coach is a practice LeanProject is uniquely equipped to accomplish. Contact us if we can help.